Thursday, April 18, 2013

That Sinking Feeling


I certainly wouldn't have guessed it, not judging from Cold War

I'm told by the most reliable source out there (Wikipedia) that Mark Gatiss is a big Doctor Who fan.  There are even suggestions that he's some sort of genius: he acts (it's Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock everyone!) AND writes (I still hold that The Idiot's Lantern is a good story, Night Terrors is also good, and The Unquiet Dead is in my Doctor Who Top Ten Reviewed So Far).  Gatiss, like myself, may be a big fan of the Ice Warriors, and he may have thought he was doing the Giant Spaghetti Monster's work (I figure he's an atheist) by bringing one of the best Doctor Who monsters back.  However, while The Seeds of Death is also among my Top Ten Reviewed Who stories (sorry, Marky's higher than yours), that Ice Warrior story is at least to me, an actual Ice Warrior story.  Cold War on the other hand is an absolute disaster and an insult to what has come before.  After watching Cold War, I got the distinct sense that no one on Doctor Who trusted the traditional Ice Warrior look would be accepted by NuWhovians to whom the show now caters. Therefore, they decided to 'improve' on things and thus made Cold War a case of fixing something that was not broken.

It is the North Pole, 1983.  A Soviet submarine is having mock nuclear launches, and while Lieutenant Stepashin (Tobias Menzies) is more eager to drop the bomb on the capitalist pigs, Captain Zhukov (Liam Cunningham) insists he will not heat up the Cold War.  Meanwhile, aboard the ship is a fossilized figure in ice being brought back to Moscow by slightly dotty Professor Grisenko (David Warner).  One sailor, not willing to wait, starts to defrost the figure, and we know what happens when you defrost a mysterious figure while trapped on a ship...

The sub quickly sinks into chaos (pun intended) and into the maelstrom enter The Doctor (Matt Smith) and his Companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman).  In his typically goofy way, wearing large sunglasses he shouts, "Viva Las Vegas!" before being thrown around and finding themselves in a sinking submarine.  Zhukov and Stepashin are suspicious of the two figures who just appeared.  The latter believes they are American spies (despite their flawless Russian) but the former is not too convinced.  Just when it is needed, the TARDIS vanishes off the ship.

As the Doctor continues to convince the Soviets he is no spy, only he does not realize that there is someone behind him.  FINALLY he finds himself confronted with an old Ice Warrior.  He is Grand Marshall Skaldak (voiced by Nicholas Briggs, performed by Spenser Wilding).  He is looking for more of his race, in particular his daughter who was with him before he was frozen in his block of ice.  Despite his best efforts, the Ice Warrior is attacked with a cattle prod.

Now captured, Skaldak telepathically calls for his brothers in arms to come to his aid.  Determined to keep things peaceful, the Doctor sends Clara as an emissary,  but he will not be placated.  Since he has been attacked, Skaldak now can destroy the whole human race.  Given he's on a nuclear sub, he certainly can.  The chains that hold him are a mere nuisance, for Skaldak leaves the safety of his armor to run amok.

Soon Skaldak is on a killing spree, with Stepashin figuratively bonding...until the Soviet is killed off but not before Skaldak decides to kill all humanity with the nuclear weapons aboard.  Skaldak almost kills Clara, then Grishenko but when cornered by the Soviets, he calls his armor to come to him, slips in and is about to push the button.  The Doctor pleads, pleads, for him to show mercy, and oddly, Skaldak does hesitate.  Just then, we find that an Ice Warrior ship suddenly appears...almost as if a God emerged from a Machine to save the day.  The spaceship pulls the sub to the surface, takes Skaldak up and the TARDIS returns as well, having left as a result of the activation of the Hostile Action Displacement System, or HADS.

Doctor Who is an IDIOT!

The disappointment I felt over Cold War is massive.  My first big issue with Cold War is that it plays too close to Alien, in particular with the Ice Warrior outside the armor.  At certain times with Skaldak skulking around quickly (so quickly one couldn't see him) one might almost imagine seeing the Ice Warrior with a tail. 

Putting aside the fact that Cold War in terms of plot and imagery comes close to Alien (the sailors being knocked down one by one by a monster aboard a ship stranded and unable to get any help) we have the actual Ice Warrior himself.  First, Gatiss could not resist the temptation to temper evil by giving him a sentimental motive.  In short, Skaldak misses his daughter.  The Ice Warrior is no longer evil or bent on domination and conquest.  No, he has to a be a wounded soul of sorts.  Even worse, he is a wimp to boot.  For almost all of Cold War, Skaldak is ruthless, dangerous, murderous, not shrinking from going on a rampage.  However, just when he's going to drop the bomb, he hesitates.  Nothing in Cold War or in the Ice Warrior mythos (apart from the Peladon tales where we're told they've renounced violence but which was not addressed here) indicates that some sort of plea would placate his vengeance.

That also bothered me to no end.  To resolve the crisis, the Doctor resorts to all but saying, "Please, Please, Pretty Please".  We have several problems with that.  First, it is far too reminiscent of how he attempted to deal with the Silurians in Cold Blood Parts 1 & 2.  Second, it takes his pacifism to an extreme.  Allow me a digression.

Matt Smith's interpretation of the Doctor has been compared to that of Patrick Troughton: the slightly bumbling but brilliant figure with the bow tie.  While they may dress similarly, that's really where all similarity ends between the two.  For all his clowning exterior the Second Doctor was always brilliant.  That bumbling persona was just for show to put off his enemies.  While never resorting to out-and-out violence the Second Doctor would attempt to defeat his enemies with some kind of weapon.  As far as I remember, he never just went up to a Dalek or a Cyberman or even a Quark and asked them to stop what they're doing.

Troughton would also never rely so heavily on the sonic screwdriver nor would he not realize there is danger behind him.  In short, he appeared to be a bumbler but never an outright idiot as Smith makes him out to be.   Smith and the NuWho staff want to emphasize the Doctor's aversion to violence, which is commendable.  However, it is muddle-headed to think that violence can be resolved merely by asking a murderous antagonist to merely play nice. 

As far as I was concerned, they might as well change the name of the monster from Ice Warrior to Ice Wimperers. 

Again and again I never got the sense I was watching actual Ice Warriors (despite Gatiss' protests to the contrary).  When we saw little glimpses of him outside the armor the animation looked cheap (although they did get a Satanic quality to the red glowing eyes along with Nicholas Briggs' voice work).

Just a side note, but is there ANYONE ELSE whom they could hire to do Doctor Who voices?  Briggs has voiced the Daleks.  Briggs has voiced the Cybermen.  Briggs now has voiced the Ice Warrior.  Is it me or are they cutting corners by getting the same guy over and over again or does Briggs have an exclusive contract to voice every non-human monster from the Classic Era?  Should they ever bring back the Sea Devils, wonder if Nicholas Briggs will be their voice too...

Cold War also did two things with the Ice Warriors that breaks away from what has come before.  First, they never fired their weapon on their arm (which always made a beautiful-looking, even scary, death).  They also de-emphasized the way they would extend the "s" whenever they would speak.  My own theory is that should they have tried to stay close to the original, NuWhovians might have found the end result more laughable than menacing.  All that breathy speaking, Gatiss, Moffat, and director Douglas Mackinnon probably thought.  They wouldn't buy it.  We have to tone down what made the Ice Warriors so unique.  Therefore, at least to me, they weren't REAL Ice Warriors, just aliens in Ice Warrior costumes.

In terms of the acting, it is nice to see Coleman have SOMETHING to do, but nothing in Cold War tells me she is anything special.  For five episodes now she still has not left any impression on me as a great Companion.  Warner didn't do much apart from looking appropriately dotty, obsessing over 80s pop groups.  Even when menaced by the unmasked Ice Warrior I was pulling more for the alien than for the human.  I will say that Menzies did impress me as Stepashin, and that is because he had an actual personality.  He WANTED to attack, he WANTED to take action.  If only Skaldak and Stepashin would have joined forces to take over the ship and launch the weapons, we could have had such a great story.

Finally, I hated the resolution to Cold War.  Again it was nothing the Doctor actually did.  Like the rain/tears in The Snowmen, like the leaf in The Rings of Akhaten, Smith's Doctor appears nearly incapable of coming up with a solution to the problem he faces.  Instead, something outside will come in, in this case the Ice Warrior ship suddenly appearing to whisk Skaldak away.  It was a cheap and easy way to get out of things, and I'm at a loss to understand why so many loved it.

I was amused by one part of Cold War.  When Clara is failing in her efforts to communicate with Skaldak, Grishenko says, "I think he wants to speak to the organ grinder, not the monkey."  Given that in The Spoonheads I thought of the Doctor AS an organ grinder's monkey with him putting out his fez to collect coins, it was a strange thing to see someone 'commenting' on something I'd seen prior.

Now, about the only good things in Cold War was the cinematography (which was appropriately atmospheric) and the sets (which looked completely like a sub).  The costumes of the Soviet Navy were also impressive. 

If it were not for these factors, Cold War would have earned an even lower score than I'm giving it.
Ultimately, one only needs to look at the difference between The Seeds of Death and Cold War to see the difference between a good Ice Warrior story and a ghastly Ice Warrior story. 

Gatisss mussst anssswer for hisss blasssphemy.
He'sss no geniusss....


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